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4 Nov 2008 : Column 43WH—continued

I also welcome the new Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), to his post, which is something of a hospital pass, as the former Minister, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) acknowledged. I
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had intended to discuss the wider issue of funding as well as the FIReControl project, but I must be circumspect in my comments. My colleagues are concerned about the discrepancies and massive disparities in funding in the comprehensive spending review period, such as those between Avon and Dorset, which received 2 per cent. in revenue support grant in this CSR period, and Humberside, which received 12 per cent., Derbyshire, which received 15 per cent., or Nottinghamshire, which received almost 18 per cent. Additionally, there are big variations in grant per head of population during that period. Devon, Somerset, Wiltshire and Dorset will receive less than £20 per capita compared with other local authorities, while the average is £19.64. The Government should consider factors affecting grant allocation, such as relative resources based on the tax base of population and tax base per head, which militate against authorities in the south-west.

It is as well to step back a little and consider the issues raised by the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry). It is all very well for him to say in his little homily how much was spent—[Interruption.]or not under a Conservative Government, but his Government have been in office for 11 years. Terry Walker and the Avon fire authority feel that they have been unfairly treated by his Government as a result of the floors and ceilings mechanism and the transitional grant repayment in Avon.

Roger Berry: I thought that I said that.

Mr. Jackson: I am happy that the hon. Gentleman confirms that that is the case.

I do not have time to discuss the review that the Department will undertake on the formula spending share by 2010, but many authorities believe that it must be speeded up as a matter of urgency. The floors and ceilings mechanism has led to major problems in the south-west, as we have heard. In the wider context, during the CSR period, south-west fire and rescue services must deal with inaccurate data on inflation, and above-inflation pay awards. Local initiatives that need discrete funding, such as civil contingencies, community fire safety and new dimensions funding, will be a significant burden.

It is important to mention Fireguard, which is an ongoing issue for fire and rescue authorities. At its board meeting last Monday, it collapsed, so local fire and rescue authorities have no means of dealing with fire cover in the event of a pandemic, national firefighters strike and so on. They will therefore fail in their legislative duty under section 7 of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 and section 2 of the Civil Contingencies Act 2002. The reality is that most fire and rescue services are faced with real-term cuts in their funding. They have been forced to view the integrated management plans as a fig leaf for real cuts in services, job losses and the removal of appliances.

Mr. Harper: The hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) did not break off from his tirade long enough to take an intervention from me, so I am grateful for the opportunity to mention that I, too, have spent time with my fire and rescue service officers—the retained officers in Cinderford. I have gone into smoke-filled buildings with them and have been incredibly impressed
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by their dedication. If this project is so good and compelling, why is it that the men and women whom we ask to risk their lives and go into burning buildings find it so unconvincing?

Mr. Jackson: My hon. Friend makes a sound and accurate point. I do not recognise the picture that the hon. Member for Gloucester paints of widespread support for the project—not least because it is not true. Even if people such as Councillor Willmott in Wiltshire support it, they do so only because of the threat that the Government will use reserved powers under the 2004 Act. It is hardly surprising that they support the project when they are faced with that difficulty.

My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean has comprehensively demolished the case for the FIReControl project. All we heard from the hon. Member for Gloucester were platitudinous comments and vacuous sound bites that show that there is no empirical data to back up his comments about, for instance, the number of calls received during the floods.

Janet Anderson (in the Chair): Order. I ask the hon. Gentleman to draw his contribution to a close so we have time for the Minister to respond.

Mr. Jackson: The case has not been made, either in terms of cost savings or resilience. The project is not only opposed by the Fire Brigades Union, but by ordinary firefighters and councillors on local fire authorities. The Government need to look again at two pertinent issues: the funding formula and the need to scrap the FIReControl project. The project will be a disaster and will encumber local fire authorities and council tax payers in the future. The Government need to be honest about that and scrap the project.

12.21 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Sadiq Khan): It is a pleasure to respond to the many points that have been raised. The comments of hon. Members deserve respect, and I will deal with as many points as I can as swiftly as I can.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on securing the debate. Aside from his congratulations to me, I did not agree with anything else in his speech. However, it is important to thank him for initiating this debate, because it gives me the chance to put on the record something with which I am sure we all agree: through their commitment and professionalism, the fire and rescue services play a crucial role in keeping our community safe. Indeed, the timing of today’s debate is a powerful reminder of the bravery and dedication that firefighters persistently demonstrate when fulfilling their duties. Today is the anniversary of the warehouse fire in Warwickshire in which four firefighters lost their lives. I beg the indulgence of hon. Members, as I shall name them: Ashley Stephens, John Averis, Darren Yates-Bradley and Ian Reid—the youngest was 20 and the oldest was 44.

It is appropriate that the hon. Gentleman secured this debate—and I am pleased he did so—which has provided an opportunity for hon. Friends and members of the Opposition to raise important points. I want to do those points justice in the short time I have. On my first
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outing as the Minister responsible for fire, I visited the fire station referred to by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke). It is an excellent station with excellent facilities and is proof, if it is needed, of our investment during the past 11 years. The station is the first building in Dorset to be completed through the private finance initiative as part of the joint police and fire service initiative.

I shall make a swift passage through some of the investment we have made, because people have short memories. For example, during recent years, we have invested more than £400 million in a PFI programme to help to deliver 21st-century stations. Fire and rescue authorities will benefit from a further £130 million in PFI credits. In fact, Dorset is receiving nearly £28 million in PFI funding to support new building projects, and other fire and rescue authorities in the south-west have benefited from PFI. Much has been made of Gloucestershire and Avon, both of which, with Somerset, were part of the collaborative PFI project to provide joint training in Avonmouth. Nearly £17 million of investment has been made through PFI. Gloucestershire has also received £40 million for new community fire stations—not for one, two or three stations, but for four of them—and a community life skills centre. I respectfully advise those who have amnesia to try to recollect what life was like before the improvements that have been made during the past 11 years.

Much was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) and others about the three-year settlement for fire and rescue services. The architect of the next Conservative manifesto, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), is here, and I am happy to take an intervention from him if he will make spending commitments in relation to what his party will do over the next period. The Opposition are not willing to make commitments for the next few weeks and months, let alone for three years’ time.

Let us be clear that under the three-year local government settlement, which was announced at the beginning of this year, single-purpose fire and rescue authorities will receive an average increase in formula grant of 2.4 per cent., 1.4 per cent. and 1.4 per cent. during the three spending review years. No fire and rescue authority will receive—[Interruption.] I can hear chuntering. I am not sure if Opposition Members wish to make an intervention; I am happy to take one if that is the case. No fire and rescue authority will receive an increase of less than 1 per cent., 0.5 per cent. and 0.5 per cent. It is worth emphasising that over the comprehensive spending review 2007 period, councils will receive an additional £8.91 billion. The factors and criteria by which the grant is allocated are well publicised and we know about them. We heard from the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill), who is involved with Streetwise, that there are benefits to having a floor, as otherwise there would be a loss, so I am glad that we have heard an endorsement of the need to have floor.

The intention of our financial policy in relation to local government has always been to provide fairness and stability. Our goal is to ensure that the three-year settlement is a three-year settlement; not a settlement that changes each year because we are lobbied to change the data or methodology that is used. The Government and I believe that it is important to provide stability for local government, so that it can have more time for
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planning its income and expenditure. That creates a greater degree of certainty and that is our goal.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: If the Minister is so concerned about transparency and clear planning, why has he disaggregated the national business case to regional FIReControl boards and delayed the publication of that case? As a result, local fire authorities are not in a position to make proper planning past the comprehensive spending review period post-2011, which will put them in a difficult financial position.

Mr. Khan: If this were not a serious debate, that would be a laughable point. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) made a point about the commitment to £300,000 for fire service facilities in relation to the Olympics. The idea that we can predict what will happen in four years’ time is absurd. There is a three-year spending commitment and those plans are reviewed towards the end of that period. Plans are made for the following three years.

Mr. Ellwood: Does the Minister appreciate the predicament that Darren Gunter finds himself in because that was the very issue he raised with me on the phone this morning? He asked me to plead with the Minister for some form of guarantee. It is great to have the boat now and to be able to run and maintain it, but there is no point in training the fire service to provide security and safety at sea if we cannot have the money to continue doing so during the Olympics in 2012.

Mr. Khan: If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we have the CSR 2010 now, I cannot give him that commitment. However, there has been scaremongering about the ability of Dorset fire and rescue services to provide facilities for the Olympics—we had a section 31 grant of £300,000—but I am confident that, if this
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Administration is in power in 2010, we will ensure that his authority has the facilities it needs to do the job it needs to do. We have always done that until now and that will always be the criteria that we use to give funding. The idea that we can somehow give commitments until 2010 is absurd. Darren Gunter will know—and the hon. Gentleman should know—that Dorset has already received £77,000 this year to do the sort of work that he is concerned the authority cannot do. The allegation that we cannot fill the hole for the work that is needed is not accurate.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: We are not talking about future funding. If the Minister takes his mind back to the comments of Dorset fire authority cited by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), he will understand the current funding situation and the fact that, as recently as February 2007, 30 per cent. savings were anticipated for the fire control project for the south-west. Those savings have not materialised, and there is no likelihood that they will do so.

Mr. Khan: I do not accept those figures. In the time I have left, there are two things worth saying. The capital grant, which is new money for which Dorset will receive the fruits, is £35 million next year and £45 million the following year. That can be used to buy fire engines, which should deal with the scaremongering comment blurted out by someone in relation to the inability to buy fire engines. An important issue I have had not had the chance to address is that of FIReControl, and the fire and resilience programme. There is no better argument and justification for that than the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda)—my predecessor as the Minister for fire. He completely destroyed the points made by four separate Opposition Members—

Janet Anderson (in the Chair): Order. We now come to the next debate.

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UK Skills Agenda

12.30 pm

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): I am especially pleased to be here with my hon. Friend the Minister. This is my first chance to see him in action and it gives me particular pleasure to be doing that today. I am aware that quite significant parts of the UK skills agenda have been devolved, so although I will mention Scotland’s policies, I shall try to err on the right side of the rules and avoid straying into the tricky territory that is devolved policy.

The skills agenda is perhaps the most important single area of public policy today. The Government in many respects set the terms of progress by commissioning the Leitch review of 2006. The resulting report, “Prosperity for all in the global economy—world class skills”, was a practical piece of work that stated fairly orthodox facts of life about the future of our economy in the world and our need for a more highly skilled population. It also made a series of recommendations about how our education and training structures should be developed to meet the challenges at hand. That report has been followed through by the Government pretty much lock, stock and barrel, most notably through the creation of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills—the UKCES.

From my perspective as the Member for Falkirk, a Scottish constituency, the UK element of the UKCES needs a bit of unpacking. It is clear that the imperatives of the Leitch report apply across the UK and, indeed, much more widely in many respects—in the widest sense, they apply to any developed economy in the world today—but devolution means that different parts of the UK are carrying forward the ideas and philosophy central to Leitch in their own ways. Certain strands apply across the UK equally. The sector skills councils apply across the UK, which is very important. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills leads on those matters. However, there are also significant parts of the agenda on which it is for the devolved Administrations to make their own decisions and policies. As I said, I will refer to Scotland, but I shall endeavour to stay on the right side of the rules.

I shall examine the issue of skills through the prism of my own constituency. Falkirk sits in the central belt of Scotland between Edinburgh and Glasgow. Historically, it provided labour for the iron industry, which in turn served the shipbuilding industry on the Clyde and elsewhere in Scotland. Employment, skills and human capital in general revolved around a number of fairly simple assumptions about how a working life would normally pan out. Women tended not to work and men tended to be trained on the job. People tended to enter employment on leaving school, often staying with the same employer, in the same location, for their entire working lives. There was a tradition in Falkirk of skilled employment for some, as the iron industry required skilled artisans and engineers at one end of the spectrum, but much of the employment was semi-skilled and quite a lot of it was unskilled, even though people did it for their entire working lives. The schools turned out many kids who expected to enter similar employment to that of their parents, and the college sector, as it was then, often provided day release for them once they entered the foundries and associated employment.

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Employment was available but, despite the fact that people often look back through rose-tinted lenses, it was not plentiful. Unemployment was much higher, employment was much lower and women tended not to work. Unemployment was a feature of life for greater numbers of people then than it is today, and working lives were often cut short by ailments caused by the industrial conditions in which people worked.

There is a danger here of presenting a monochrome, over-simplistic version of the local economy at the time. It is nevertheless fair to say that the essential nature of the local economy and people’s working lives can be understood only against the backdrop of the foundries and the industrial landscape that they formed.

Interestingly—I think it is interesting anyway, because I did it—I sent 10,000 questionnaires to local households. I should have said that I and my massively capable staff did that—they did it and I take credit for it. We asked various questions about life in the Falkirk area, and many of the norms and figures that we got were pretty much the same as those that people would get not only across Scotland, but across the whole of the UK. From a policy point of view, Falkirk is in many respects a typical place that we can generalise from outwards to the whole of the UK—I like to think so, anyway. People can see the results of the survey on

My predecessor in the House, Harry Ewing, who subsequently became Lord Ewing of Kirkford, said in his maiden speech that Falkirk was “solely an iron town”. That was in 1971. He pointed out that there had been recent investment in the industry and that it was well equipped for the tail end of the 20th century. However, within about 10 years of that speech, most of the foundries were either closing or had closed, and by the time I came on the scene, just over 10 years after that, they were all gone. There was one left, but it has now gone as well, which shows just how quickly the nature of employment has changed in my part of Scotland and, indeed, across the UK.

Let us fast forward to today. All those foundries are now closed and on the sites of the old foundries are new build housing estates. Indeed, it sometimes seems that if planning permission permitted, pretty much every available square inch in Falkirk would have a house built on it. That is because Edinburgh and Glasgow are only half an hour away and Falkirk sits in the middle of three motorways, so people live there and travel to work. Clearly, there are still many jobs in Falkirk—including those at Alexander Dennis, which builds the red London buses, one of which we saw at the Beijing Olympics—but there is far more commuting and there is a far greater flow of people moving into the new build houses than moving on elsewhere. That impacts on the local economy, and I will come to the skills base.

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